Communications for Social Good

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1 8 PRACTICE MATTERS THE IMPROVING PHILANTHROPY PROJECT Communications for Social Good Susan Nall Bales Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. To download for free, log on to the Foundation Center s web site: foundationcenter.org/gainknowledge/practicematters/ Made possible by: The California Endowment The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation John S. and James L. Knight Foundation The David and Lucile Packard Foundation Series Editors Patricia Patrizi Kay Sherwood Abby Spector April 2004

2 About the Project Practice Matters: The Improving Philanthropy Project presents a series of papers that explore, and ultimately aim to advance, key practices in philanthropy. Written by national experts, the titles address ten core philanthropic practices: using intermediaries, sponsoring policy commissions, effecting community change, attracting and managing talent, creativity in grantmaking, using ideas in building a field, building organizational capacity, communications for social good, foundation partnerships, and evaluation. The series starts from the premise that philanthropy, as a field, needs to understand good philanthropic practice much better than it does now, and that there is a discernible craft that can be taught and improved. The papers and accompanying discussion guides are available for free download at the Foundation Center s web site at foundationcenter.org/gainknowledge/practicematters/. Practice Matters: The Improving Philanthropy Project is supported by the California Endowment and the Robert Wood Johnson, Ewing Marion Kauffman, John S. and James L. Knight, and David and Lucile Packard Foundations. The project is housed at the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning in Philadelphia. Patricia Patrizi, Principal, Patrizi Associates, directs the project. Abby Spector serves as project manager and Kay Sherwood is the principal manuscript editor. For more information, please contact: Patrizi Associates 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 805 Philadelphia, PA (215) , ext. 235 About the Foundation Center Established in 1956, and today supported by hundreds of foundations, the Foundation Center is the nation s leading authority on organized philanthropy. It maintains the most comprehensive database on U.S. grantmakers and their grants, conducts research on trends in foundation growth and giving, and operates education and outreach programs. Thousands of people visit the Center s web site each day are served in its five regional learning centers and its national network of Cooperating Collections. For more information, visit foundationcenter.org or call (212) For more information, please contact: The Foundation Center 79 Fifth Avenue New York, NY (212) foundationcenter.org Copyright 2006 by The Foundation Center. All rights reserved. ISSN Communications for Social Good 2

3 Editors Note The role of communications is rising in importance in grantmaking approaches, and no longer is restricted simply to telling the story of grantfunded programs after they have ended. The Benton Foundation, the Partnership for a Drug Free America, and other organizations are demonstrating that communications can be a powerful tool to address widespread social problems. Most grantmakers, however, are unschooled in communications thinking and practices. In their paper, Communications for Social Good, Susan Nall Bales and Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. introduce the latest perspectives from communication theory and practice to help grantmakers promote more effective communication strategies among their grantees and within their own organizations. In a clear, approachable style, the authors guide readers through decisions about the major aspects of communications campaigns. They conclude with a call for greater collaboration among the philanthropic, academic, and policy communities to study and improve approaches to communications in the public interest. Communications for Social Good 3

4 Executive Summary If foundations are more intentional in using communications as a tool for social change, and if they incorporate what is known about how the media affect individuals and groups into their grantmaking, they will be much more likely to achieve the kind of long-term change in public understanding and opinion that is needed to maximize their impact. This paper presents the latest perspectives from communications theory and practice in order to update philanthropic thinking and help philanthropists judge effective communications practices among their grantees and within their own organizations. Communications Thinking In order to evaluate its utility to grantmaking, foundations must appreciate the role that communications plays in public thinking and public life. Prevailing theory in the field of communications posits close, but complicated, connections among these phenomena. Three core concepts can help clarify and focus foundation thinking. These concepts are: agendasetting, framing, and persuasion. First, public opinion research over the past decade confirms that news media constitute the main source of Americans information about public affairs. The real world is increasingly viewed through the lens of the news media. As issues rise and fall on the news media agenda, so does their potential for attracting the attention of the public and its policymakers. The ability of the news media to set the public agenda determines to a large extent what issues policymakers will feel compelled to address. Indeed, media are often read by policymakers as the proxy for public opinion. These findings elaborate the core communications concept of agenda-setting. Second, news media do more than tell us what to think about; they also direct how we think about particular social issues whether, for example, we consider them to be individual problems necessitating better behaviors or whether they are collective, social problems requiring structural policy and program solutions. Messages conveyed by mainstream media take on the value of public narratives about the ways of the world, and different types of stories produce different social learning. When news frames public issues narrowly, as problems of specific people or groups, support for policy proposals plummets. When a media story highlights conditions Communications for Social Good 4

5 Executive Summary and trends, by contrast, public support for policies to address the problem increases dramatically. Further, how the media frame or present public issues is critical to the final resolution of public problems. Not only can framing affect whether the solution to any given social problem is judged by the public to be individual or collective, but the media s use of a specific frame is an important influence on the way people judge the relevance and legitimacy of a communication s implicit or explicit call to action. This set of findings elaborates the communications concept called framing. Third, the news media influence how people think about attitudes and behaviors they need to adopt in order to enhance their own well-being or prevent individual loss the communications concept called persuasion. Persuasion theorists focus on the responses of the target audience to messages which are largely seen as pushed out through media. For example, a persuasion campaign oriented to improving children s health might adopt a message like, Oral health: it s not just about your teeth, building off the documented impression that one of the major personal obstacles to brushing is the erroneous belief that the health of the mouth does not influence overall health. Persuasive communications are particularly wellsuited to the goal of changing individual behavior, even if the messages are broadcast to mass publics, rather than to social change goals that focus on the opportunities and constraints on individuals behavior. Communication Practices Communications campaigns have traditionally been classified according to their end target or locus of change: the individual consumer or the mass public. Those aimed at the individual tend to draw their strategies and tools from a commercial perspective, using public relations, marketing, and advertising as the foundation for their campaigns. Publicly oriented campaigns tend to rely upon the theory and practice of politics as their foundation. The paper describes seven schools of communications practice that reflect these two orientations. The schools that target individual consumers, based on commercial perspectives and techniques, include: public relations, public service advertising, and social marketing. The schools that target collective publics, based on political perspectives and techniques, include: grassroots social mobilization, policy campaigns, media advocacy, and strategic frame analysis. What foundations can learn from these different schools of practice is, above all, intentionality. Together, these different schools arrange and deploy different techniques, based on their understanding of the core concepts of agenda-setting, framing, and persuasion, and arrive at different conclusions about what matters in communications campaigning. For funders, an important lesson is that the variety exists, and that the different practices can be used critically to refine any communications campaign s theory of change, tools of analysis, operational strategy, products, Communications for Social Good 5

6 Executive Summary and evaluation design. The simple question What kind of campaign do we need for this problem? is an improvement over the imprecision that currently characterizes philanthropic communications. The comparisons offered in the paper set the stage for communications campaigns that can realize the promise of being truly strategic. Communications Practice: Tools and Techniques A wide array of specific tools and techniques can be enlisted to support different organizational objectives. The paper s discussion of these is organized around Harold Lasswell s enduring five-questions model of communications: Who says what to whom via what channels with what effects? as well as a sixth important question added by later researchers: Why? For each of the six questions, the authors present research that supports and explains its importance, followed by a series of leading questions to guide communications planners through decisions about each element of a communications campaign. For example, questions at the problem identification stage of planning a communications strategy addressing the question of why communicate include: What is the social problem we are addressing? What are its characteristics? What do people already know about it, and how do they think about it? What have been the dominant frames of media coverage of the issue? What do we think should be done to improve/solve it? What do experts believe should be done to improve/solve it? What is our policy agenda or what are our objectives in tackling this problem? What is our theory of change, e.g., how do we think our efforts can prove helpful? What objective indicators would suggest to us that opinion/ policy/behavior is moving in the right direction? What is the appropriate role for communications in the broader strategy? What schools of communications practice seem best oriented to this problem? Communications for Social Good 6

7 Executive Summary Lessons The rarity with which scholars, policy advocates, and foundation program officers are involved together in the practical business of devising better approaches to communications in the public interest is a costly oversight in the evolution of philanthropy. There are numerous ways in which this can be remedied. Foundations with common agendas can collaborate by studying changes in public discourse on these issues. More systematic planning and evaluation of campaigns would result in better comparisons and more real lessons learned. The systematic incorporation of a theoretical framework and research into funded activities would build better overall capacity among grantees which, in turn, would accrue value across entire fields. In any case, foundations can play an important convening role in communications thinking, as well as in insisting on well-planned communications campaigns that demonstrate an understanding of the way communications works, both theoretically and practically. We will know we have arrived at this juncture when foundation communications funding is devoted not merely to dissemination but equally to understanding the communications context in which social problems occur and persist. And we will know foundations understand the potential of communications for social good when communications funding is integrated robustly into all grants that seek to improve the social good. Communications for Social Good 7

8 Introduction If foundations are in the business of promoting ideas that address social problems, then communications must become an integral part of their strategy. Why should foundations do communications? Because they can t not do it. Like it or not, communications is the way that nonprofit organizations, working through the media and grassroots organizations, seek to engage ordinary people in understanding and solving social problems. Foundations underestimate the power of communications to the detriment of their larger social goals. If foundations are in the business of promoting ideas that address social problems and partnering with communities to realize those ideals, then communications must become an integral part of their strategy. While foundations have often shied away from communications, they have done so under the mistaken belief that communications is largely the handmaiden of fundraisers or publicity-seekers. Getting communications back into the social change equation is imperative if foundations are to play an active part in public life and public discourse. Research in the cognitive and social sciences during the last decade suggests that real social change involves changing the way people think about social problems and solutions. Communications can both help and hinder this important transformation. When communications is effective, people can see an issue from a different perspective. When communications is inadequate, people default to the pictures in their heads 1 stereotypes are reinforced, civic participation is suppressed, and hopelessness confirmed. Seen from this perspective, communications is part of the problem that grantmakers must address in overcoming obstacles to building a better world. In this paper, we argue that if foundations are more intentional in using communications as a tool for social change, and if they incorporate what is known about how the media affect individuals and groups in their communications efforts, they will be much more likely to achieve the kind of long-term change in public understanding and opinion that now eludes their sponsored projects. By deconstructing the notion of strategic communications, which is our goal, we can more precisely attribute the mechanisms that move public will and, in the end, identify for philanthropy the vital elements of communications thinking for social good. To this end, we present the latest in communications theorizing and practice in order to update philanthropic thinking. The integrated approach presented here rests on three core concepts that inform communications thinking the theory which are linked to two types of Communications for Social Good 8

9 Introduction An understanding of communications thinking and practice is essential to help foundations and their grantees promote proven social programs and policies. communications campaigning the practice. Agenda-setting, the first concept, is oriented to the solution of public problems: People attempt to influence the public agenda in order to secure public funds or enact public policies. The second concept, framing, illuminates the way people process information and distinguishes what kinds of stories support public versus private attributions of responsibility for action. The third concept, persuasion, has its origins in private consumer choice theory, but has also been adapted to public problems, in the form of social marketing. The two types of communications campaigning are aimed, respectively, at individual and public change. There are several different explanations among communications scholars and experts of the problems that communications must solve, and different approaches to solving them, which are reviewed in our attempt to unify theory and practice. We offer two different ways to deconstruct the practice of communications. The first, which we find the preferable approach, looks at different schools of thought in order to match these to a foundation s communications objectives. The second, and more common approach, deconstructs communications by the topical challenges raised in various aspects of campaign practice, from the choice of messengers to the target audience. In presenting these two options, we attempt to show how the theoretical literature can inform better communications choices. Overall, the question we aim to answer is: How can foundations help their grantees to do better communications to promote long-term public understanding and support of proven programs and policies? The answer to this question must begin with an understanding of communications thinking and its particular lens on the arena of social issues. Communications for Social Good 9

10 What Is Communications Thinking? The history of public communication campaigns in America is also, integrally, a history of social change. William J. Paisley 2 Prevailing theory posits close, but complicated, connections among communications, public opinion, and action on social issues. In order to evaluate its utility to grantmaking, foundations must appreciate the role that communications plays in public thinking and public life. This requires funders to understand the relationship of communications to the evolution of public issues. Even though some may question the relevance of communications to solving social problems, few would challenge the importance of public opinion in influencing which social problems are allotted attention and resources. Establishing the relationships among communications, public opinion, and action on social issues, then, is an important step in developing a philanthropic stance toward communications. Prevailing theory in the field of communications posits close, but complicated, connections among these three phenomena. 3 Public Opinion and Communications Media There is no such thing as a social problem, until enough people, with enough power in the society, agree that there is. Social problems are produced by public opinion, not by particular social conditions, undesirable or otherwise. Mauss and Wolfe 4 How, then, does public opinion form around a social issue? Most [people] are not interested in most public issues most of the time, wrote Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky in a famous analysis of American public opinion. 5 Most people have little daily contact with many issues on the public agenda from AIDS to biological terrorism and school violence yet many develop opinions about these issues and their opinions greatly influence policymaker priorities and behavior. Mass media abet this process of opinion formation. Most Americans are exposed to a cacophony of communications. Whether in the form of music and the arts, entertainment, or the more Communications for Social Good 10

11 What Is Communications Thinking? Public opinion research confirms that news media constitute the main source of Americans information about public affairs. recent trend toward Internet outlets, people learn about their world from an array of sources, and communications campaigns take advantage of these multiple sources of information. Public opinion research over the past decade, however, confirms that news media constitute the main source of Americans information about public affairs. 6 What this means is that the real world is increasingly viewed through the lens of the news media. Social learning about race, family, poverty, etc., can be demonstrated to be highly influenced by the stories told to the public on the nightly news. This is not to say that movies and entertainment television, for instance, play an insignificant role in the construction of the average person s worldview; but, the news media should be accorded a central place in any thoughtful formulation of the role of communications in promoting the social good. For purposes of this paper, we will concern ourselves primarily with news media, both print and broadcast, and to a lesser extent, public service media and issue advertising. We define communications campaigns in the broadest sense, as those intentional efforts that use earned and paid media, as well as other techniques, to advance a particular perspective on a social issue. As issues rise and fall on the news media agenda, so does their potential for attracting the attention of the public and its policymakers. The ability of the news media to set the public agenda, in turn, determines to a large extent what issues policymakers will feel compelled to address. Indeed, media are often read by policymakers as the proxy for public opinion. 7 Vincent Price expressed the relationship between the media and public opinion this way: Public opinion whether viewed in philosophical, political, sociological, or psychological terms remains fundamentally a communication concept. 8 This is important because too often public opinion is studied and addressed without reference to the way the culture s storytellers have framed public issues over time. Price would suggest that this is a fatal omission. News media do more than tell us what to think about; they also direct how we think about particular social issues whether, for example, we consider them to be individual problems necessitating better behaviors or whether they are collective, social problems requiring structural policy and program solutions. 9 Messages conveyed by mainstream media take on the value of public narratives about the ways of the world, and different types of stories produce different social learning. Our own research confirms the findings from more than a decade of social science experiments: When news frames public issues narrowly, as problems of specific people or groups, support for policy proposals plummets. When a media story highlights conditions and trends, by contrast, public support for policies to address the problem increases dramatically. Michael Pertschuk reports that, as long as smoking was covered as a story about individual behavior choice, it was unlikely to galvanize a public following for more stringent tobacco control policies. Framed as a defective product that requires Communications for Social Good 11

12 What Is Communications Thinking? Framing affects whether the solution to a given social problem is judged by the public to be individual or collective. government intervention to protect the citizenry, however, tobacco control proposals gained supporters. 10 How the media frame or present public issues is equally critical to the final resolution of public problems. 11 Not only can framing affect whether the solution to any given social problem is judged by the public to be individual or collective, but the media s use of specific frames is an important influence on the way people judge the relevance and legitimacy of a communication s implicit or explicit call to action. For example, if child abuse is portrayed as a criminal act perpetrated by evildoers, calls to action that ask people to befriend troubled parents before they become abusers, or even to support preventive treatment for stressed parents, are unlikely to meet with a positive public response. Thus, the concept of framing is important both to those campaigns that seek to move public opinion and to those that seek to change individual behavior. While many communications campaigns address the public, they usually do so as an aggregate of individuals, not in the collective sense of seeking what is best for the society. Such campaigns seek to persuade individuals to change their beliefs, feelings, or behaviors, based on research about how individuals are affected by specific messages. In this sense, most communications campaigns pay more attention to the psychological orientation of the individual as a consumer who chooses between competing products than they do to the sociological or political roles people play in voting and expressing policy preferences about social issues. For example, this typical definition of public communications campaigns is oriented toward an individual unit of analysis: Public education campaigns... [attempt] to inform, persuade, or motivate behavior changes in a relatively welldefined and large audience, generally for noncommercial benefits to the individuals and/or society at large, typically within a given time period, by means of organized communication activities involving mass media and often complemented by interpersonal support. 12 Some communications scholars have argued that this overemphasis on individual behavior dooms communications campaigns from the beginning. As Larry Wallack has written, a key factor in determining the effectiveness of communications designed to achieve social good (is) whether the individual is the most appropriate or most effective agent to achieve social change. 13 Three Core Communications Concepts What we know about how news media influence public opinion can be summed up in terms of three core communications concepts: Communications for Social Good 12

13 What Is Communications Thinking? Agenda-setting: The media influence which issues people think are important for government to address. Framing: The media influence how people think about and interpret ideas and issues, particularly how they think about solutions to problems. Persuasion: The media influence how people think about attitudes and behaviors they need to adopt in order to enhance their own well-being or prevent individual loss. In order for foundations and their grantees to develop effective communications plans, they must be able to relate their challenges and their strategies to these core concepts. Agenda-setting is the process of placing issues on the policy agenda for public consideration and intervention, a process dominated by the news media. Agenda-setting Agenda-setting is the name given to the process of placing issues on the policy agenda for public consideration and intervention. News media are instrumental to the perceived salience of a particular social problem. Indeed, researchers view the policy agenda as the outcome of media influence on the public. 14 As another communications scholar sees it, the media set the public agenda which, in turn, sets the policymaker agenda. 15 Experimental research over the last decade has demonstrated that even brief exposure to media coverage of a particular issue will increase public assessment of that issue s importance. 16 Thus, an issue is by definition a social problem that has received mass media coverage 17 and the agendasetting process is defined as an ongoing competition among issue proponents to gain the attention of media professionals, the public, and policy elites. 18 The implications of these relationships are profound. News media have the ability to place a high priority on issues that may, in fact, not be as important as others. Conversely, those issues that get relatively little media attention are unlikely to figure among the most important problems facing the nation. This essentially casts news media in the role of democracy s unelected gatekeepers. If a social problem does not conform to the needs and conventions of journalism, it is unlikely to get told and sold to the American public. For example, in decrying parachute journalism the media s tendency to move rapidly from crisis to crisis David Gergen says, It was as if the lights went out over El Salvador, and the country s subsequent struggle to preserve democracy disappeared from sight. Out of sight, it also passed out of mind for American viewers. Television loves sagas in which someone wins and someone loses. It abhors long, tedious, complex stories and will usually ignore them if possible. 19 The important question of whether the United States long-term policies toward El Salvador should figure more prominently in American concerns than, say, a dramatic story Communications for Social Good 13

14 What Is Communications Thinking? If a social problem does not conform to the needs and conventions of journalism, it is unlikely to get told and sold to the American public. like an earthquake in Mexico, is muted by the media s uncontested demands for an entertaining narrative. Foundations that labor to publish fact books without making parallel investments in translating these facts into public discourse ignore the function that the news media provide in the national public square, refining and rationalizing the country s to do list. While the President and the major national newspapers, for instance, can have a powerful impact on an issue s salience, by contrast, a real-world indicator is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause for an issue to climb the agenda. 20 In a famous study of agenda-setting, Funkhouser compared the media agenda to real-world indicators or descriptive statistics that demonstrate the extent or nature of a social problem on 14 issues over the decade of the sixties and found little correlation. 21 Other studies confirm that the issues salient in the media correlate to those expressed by public opinion. 22 But what about those issues where people have first-hand experience? Are we still so susceptible to media s influence? In fact, the evidence suggests that familiarity with an issue may make people more media attentive to that issue, and therefore more influenced by media coverage, not less. Evidence from a half a century of polling in the United States supports the proposition that the more citizens know about politics and public affairs, the more firmly they are wedded to elite and media perspectives on foreign policy issues, says John Zaller. 23 Elite and media influence is likely to be limited to those citizens who are sufficiently attentive to politics to be aware of what elites are saying... and then the most politically aware citizens are most susceptible to influence because they are most heavily exposed to an elite consensus that they have no partisan basis for resisting. 24 Zaller further suggests that as news issues come up, the public looks to public statements by its political leaders partisan, ideological, religious, ethnic, and so forth to decide what should be done, and is willing, within broad limits, to go along with what the majority of leaders advises. Then, as the consequences of elite initiatives become apparent in the form of policies that succeed or fail, the public judges its leaders accordingly. 25 Other communications scholars disagree. People are not so passive. People are not so dumb, and people negotiate with media messages in complicated ways that vary from issue to issue, says William Gamson, who promotes a theory of political consciousness that emphasizes the role of personal strategies in mitigating media frames. 26 Put simply, on those issues where Americans have access to additional viewpoints and sources of information, such as personal or recounted experience, the effect of media exposure is lessened. The problem for issues that are far removed from opportunities for direct observation, like the Arab-Israeli conflict or nuclear power, is that media discourse is typically their first resort. Gamson concludes with an admonition to those who seek to reframe issues for broader public participation that they search for existing Communications for Social Good 14

15 What Is Communications Thinking? The way the news is framed sets up habits of thought and expectation that are so powerful they serve to configure new information to conform to the frame. experiential knowledge that can be shown to be relevant for a broader collective action frame. 27 Ironically, news media may be even more influential on policy elites than on the public. The lack of contact between policy elites and the general public may make the former all the more reliant upon the media as a proxy for public opinion. 28 In a study of the actual impact of what he termed icons of outrage, or those famous photos widely credited with having had an impact on foreign policy attitudes among the public (for example, vicious dogs attacking Black protesters in Selma, Alabama), David Perlmutter found instead a first person effect where discourse elites feel that a picture has an effect on them (or should have one) and then, often falsely, project this effect on the general viewing public. 29 In other words, highly news attentive people, such as public officials, assumed that the images being broadly distributed by the media affected others in precisely the same way and to the same degree that the images affected them. This was not always the case. But, regardless of actual public opinion, Perlmutter found that widely disseminated news pictures, such as those associated with events like the revolt of Chinese dissidents in Tiananmen Square, have a powerful effect on policymakers: Policy is explained by pointing at specific images in the press. 30 Framing The attention to volume and placement of media coverage that is the focus of agenda-setting does not tell the whole story about the influence of communications on public opinion. The type of story that is told by the news media also powerfully affects the public s understanding of social issues. The media s influence on how we think about social problems lasts far beyond our memory of a particular newscast or news topic. The way the news is framed on many issues sets up habits of thought and expectation that, over time, are so powerful that they serve to configure new information to conform to this frame. 31 Framing refers to the way a story is told its selective use of particular symbols, metaphors, and messengers, for example and to the way these cues, in turn, trigger the shared and durable cultural models that people use to make sense of their world. The frame is the organizing principle, what a story is about, supported by the frame elements of messenger, metaphor, etc., which combine to support the overall idea. Understanding which frames serve to advance which policy options with which groups is central to communications strategy. For example, the documented tendency in U.S. media to focus on U.S. contributions to foreign aid to the virtual exclusion of those of other countries is undoubtedly responsible for the equally documented assessment that Americans resist increasing foreign assistance because they believe the U.S. is doing it all. Headlines like the following help establish this opinion, as they are told within the frame of U.S. generosity: Communications for Social Good 15

16 What Is Communications Thinking? U.S., Japan, Other Nations Pledge $7.9 Billion in Food Subsidies (subheadline of a story explaining that the U.S. pledged $300 million to Indonesia, while Japan pledged $1.3 billion and unidentified other countries pledged $6.3 billion.) Washington Post, July 31, 1998, p. A20 Framing choices in news are also evident when issues like unemployment, homelessness, or lack of health insurance are portrayed as individual choices or misfortunes, focusing in tightly on the individual impacts of social and political forces, and not on the broader conditions that shape and constrain those choices. These narrative decisions have consequences for public thinking, as they tend to place responsibility on the individuals experiencing the problem, rather than on public policies. Consider these two very different approaches to stories about Chicago public housing. When issues are portrayed as individual choices or misfortunes, they are unlikely to lead to policy solutions. Many Face Street as Chicago Project Nears End David Seals has lived 43 of his 51 years in the Ida B. Wells housing project, most of the time as part of the invisible colony of men whose names do not appear on Chicago Housing Authority leases but who nonetheless sleep in its beds. Sheba Lovia Hinkle, 33, moved into Wells in 1991 and was evicted a year later because of her boyfriend s drug dealing. But she stayed, shuttling with her six children among friends apartments in the low-rise walkups that make up this sprawling development on the South Side a few blocks from Lake Michigan. New York Times, August 7, 2003 Broken Promises A group of mothers at the Henry Horner Project is taking their landlord to court now. The tenants claim the west side project is broken down and the Chicago Housing Authority has broken promises to them. The Mothers Guild says it is not unreasonable to expect the Chicago Housing Authority to adhere to the same standards other landlords are expected to meet. WLDF Local News, Chicago Video Project, 1991 A decade of research in media effects would strongly suggest that the first article is unlikely to lead to policy solutions to the problems described later in the story, while the second story is far more likely to prioritize public policies and programs as germane to the problem definition. Importantly, both ways of framing the story are dramatic and newsworthy. But only one frame leads to collective action. Communications for Social Good 16

17 What Is Communications Thinking? Episodic news frames, which predominate on U.S. television newscasts, focus on discrete events, but thematic frames place public issues in a broader context. Frames are important because research suggests people use mental shortcuts to make sense of new information and these mental shortcuts rely on small sets of internalized concepts and values that allow us to accord meaning to unfolding events. Put simply, the central organizing principle in any communication the frame triggers what Lippmann called the pictures in our heads, the models we have developed over time to make sense of our world. Once evoked, frames provide the reasoning to process information quickly and to solve problems, drawing upon our internal reservoirs of expectations about how the world works. As linguist Deborah Tannen has observed, People approach the world not as naïve, blank-slate receptacles who take in stimuli... in some independent and objective way, but rather as experienced and sophisticated veterans of perception who have stored their prior experiences as an organized mass. This prior experience then takes the form of expectations about the world, and in the vast majority of cases, the world, being a systematic place, confirms these expectations, saving the individual the trouble of figuring things out anew all the time. 32 Stephen Reese offers a particularly inclusive working definition of frames: Frames are organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the world. (All emphases in the original.) 33 Further, frames have consequences. As Charlotte Ryan observes: Every frame defines the issue, explains who is responsible, and suggests potential solutions. All of these are conveyed by images, stereotypes, or anecdotes. 34 For example, experimental research by Gilliam and Iyengar 35 has shown that the pervasive influence of what they call the crime script (crime is violent and perpetrators are non-white) is causally connected to increased anti-black sentiments and support for punitive crime policies among whites. The relative use of episodic and thematic news frames by the news media is a key factor in how public opinion is shaped. As Iyengar describes these two types, episodic news frames, which predominate on U.S. television newscasts, depict public issues in terms of concrete instances. That is, they focus on discrete events that involve individuals located at specific places and at specific times, as in nightly crime reports. By contrast, thematic frames place public issues in a broader context by focusing on general conditions or outcomes, such as reports on poverty trends. 36 The type of news frame used has a profound effect on the way in which individuals attribute responsibility. 37 Because television news is heavily episodic, its effect is generally to induce attributions of responsibility to individual victims or perpetrators rather than to broad societal forces. 38 And, while it is true that print media tend to be more thematic than broadcast media, the dominant frames used in many print news stories nevertheless reinforce a consumer stance to public issues such as health care, framing the issue as an individual product instead of as a societal problem. 39 Communications for Social Good 17

18 What Is Communications Thinking? Different Frames Set Up Different Policy Solutions Episodic Frames Individuals Events Pyschological Private Appeal to consumers Better information Fix the person Thematic Frames Issues Trends Political/environmental Public Appeal to citizens Better policies Fix the condition Because television news is heavily episodic, its effect is generally to induce attributions of responsibility to individual victims or perpetrators rather than to broad societal forces. How common are episodic frames? In a comprehensive review of 10,000 local and national television news stories about international events and issues over six weeks in 1999, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found only 84 that took a thematic approach. Only one out of six national stories and one out of five local stories contained even one opinion on the cause or solution to the problem. 40 In another study of how local television news stories on 15 stations over a month portrayed youth issues, the Center concluded that thematic information about youth were quite rare, accounting for only one out every 14 stories (7 percent) overall. 41 Finally, a recent study of depictions of youth in local news programming in six cities found that only two in ten stories included significant thematic content. 42 Our own research on framing effects associated with foreign policy and youth development suggests that people will be more likely to hold individuals responsible for problems and to understand and support individual solutions to these problems when exposed to the episodic frame. 43 These findings further testify to the validity of the assertions of other researchers 44 that the episodic coverage that dominates television news takes its toll on public understanding of policy issues. In sum, grantmakers would be wise to avoid a narrow focus on the clipboard mentality toward news, by which grantees are lauded for making as much news as possible without attention to the framing of that news. Rather, the ability to move the frame from episodic toward thematic narratives about a given social problem should be a key factor in evaluating an organization s media success. At the same time, a healthy realism about the difficulty involved in doing so should temper grantmakers goals. A key lesson from communications thinking is that organizations enter a public dialogue that is already in progress, in which patterns of expectation about social issues have been formed over time by news frames. Reversing that process is both necessary and lengthy. Persuasion Persuasion is the ability to recognize and manipulate attitudes, defined by Carl Rogers as a positive or negative feeling toward some individual or object that serves as a predisposition to action. 45 The original persuasion Communications for Social Good 18

19 What Is Communications Thinking? Persuasion is the ability to recognize and manipulate attitudes. research is credited to Carl Hovland, who studied the effectiveness of the Why We Fight recruitment films created for the U.S. military in World War II. Hovland s work set the model for subsequent research and suggested that appeals to individuals that aggregate to mass action remain the goal of most persuasion campaigns. Such persuasion campaigns rely strongly on behavioral theories and research to choose among informational approaches that motivate and guide the action of individuals. The questions that campaigns like these ask include: What attitudes prevent the individual from taking action? Would the target be better motivated by a positive or a negative appeal? Would an authority figure or a peer serve as a more convincing messenger to engage the target in the individual action? These questions, then, drive the type of research that is used to inform the campaign design. It is important to distinguish between the individual outcome and the collective action associated with social movements, in which people mobilize to change the opportunity and reward structure of a society which is seen to constrain behavior change in the first place. 46 Persuasion campaigns focus on the impact of a small number of factors on the target individual s desired behavior, including such inputs as source credibility, rewards within the message, repetition, and intelligence of the receiver. These factors add up to the input in the model. On the output side, McGuire has analyzed a hierarchy of effects of the persuasion process: [T]he public must be exposed to the message and, having been exposed to it, must attend to it, like it, learn what and how, agree, store and retrieve, and decide on the basis of it, down to behaving on the basis of that decision, getting reinforced for so behaving, and engaging in post compliance activity (such as proselytizing others or reorganizing one s related beliefs) that consolidates the new position induced by the communication. 47 Persuasion theorists focus on the responses of the target audience to messages which are largely seen as pushed out through media, but not interactive to the degree that cognitive theorists would suggest is the case. 48 From the cognitive theory literature comes the popular concept of inoculation overcoming the target s resistance to a message by anticipating and including the rebuttal in the original message. For example, a persuasion campaign oriented to improving children s health might adopt a message like, Oral health: it s not just about your teeth, building off the documented impression that one of the major personal obstacles to brushing is the erroneous belief that the health of the mouth does not influence overall health. Evaluated from a framing perspective, critics of this approach would say that reminding people of what they believe simply allows them to make the fast and frugal cognitive connection to their enduring belief system and to be done with the message. Moreover, the call to action ignores the biggest obstacle to better oral health lack of access to dentists and is therefore, misplaced energy as it further reinforces personal responsibility in place of public solutions. The application of persuasion versus agenda-setting communications strategies can be illustrated by considering whether the desired outcome is Communications for Social Good 19

20 What Is Communications Thinking? Persuasion tends to focus on the people who have the problem, while agenda-setting focuses on the people who have the power to change the problem through political power. in the realm of personal or public behavior. Garbage recycling, for example, would be a prime candidate for a persuasion campaign if the goal were to use media strategically to change the garbage handling behavior of individual householders. Such a hypothetical campaign might use one s standing in the community to induce the target to make sure their recycling bins show they are a good neighbor. By contrast, an agenda-setting campaign would try to get voters to support environmental legislation, such as taxcredits for businesses that recycle. This type of campaign might calculate the potential savings to the community if its three major employers were to institute recycling campaigns and would call on voters to make recycling everybody s business by supporting tax incentives. The difference between these two approaches would be largely determined by the type of media frames used, with the persuasion frame defining the problem as personal and the agenda-setting frame defining it as public in nature. There is another important distinction between agenda-setting and persuasion. Persuasion tends to focus on the people who have the problem, while agenda-setting focuses on the people who have the power to change the problem through political power. 49 Thus, persuasion campaigns are oriented almost exclusively to at-risk populations, even though our knowledge of who is at risk for a problem is imperfect, and persons at risk usually constitute only a small proportion of the total audience in the coverage area of most media campaigns. 50 In this view, the agenda-setting approach to communication strategy speaks to the empowerment of individuals over their situations whereas the persuasion approach suggests blaming the victim and ignoring the power structure of social rewards. For example, a popular Advertising Council campaign on domestic violence 51 focuses in tightly on a portrait of a battered woman with the following copy: It s hard to confront a friend who abuses his wife. But not as hard as being his wife.... There s no excuse. This campaign frames a social problem narrowly by focusing on the people who have the problem, their relationships and a personal action that only they and perhaps the observer are responsible for taking. Invisible in the discussion are the factors that lead to domestic violence, such as substance abuse, job dislocation, economic hardship, etc. A campaign that used this approach and expected to move the public toward support of mental health and prevention programs would likely experience the predictable results from the mismatch of persuasion techniques to social policy goals. The ability of attitudes to predict behaviors has been the focus of a half century of research, with some critics suggesting that only about 10 percent of the variance in overt behavior is accounted for by attitudes. 52 Indeed, some scholars have argued that behavioral change produces attitude change, rather than the reverse, so that to change people s attitudes one should not present new information on the issue but rather should Communications for Social Good 20

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